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Times of Need

Tonight, quoth the president:”This is an extraordinary period for America’s economy.” Which you might think sounds good, until:

We’ve seen triple-digit swings in the stock market. Major financial institutions have teetered on the edge of collapse, and some have failed. As uncertainty has grown, many banks have restricted lending, credit markets have frozen, and families and businesses have found it harder to borrow money.

Financial assets related to home mortgages have lost value during the house decline, and the banks holding these assets have restricted credit. As a result, our entire economy is in danger.

Sarah Palin (noted economics expert) suggested that we might be headed for another Great Depression. Perhaps even Warren Buffett can’t save us. Chickens home to roost? The end of an era? Pick your expression. People are getting poorer.

Does this cry out for us to change the way we think about everything? To change the way we believe?

For a few weeks, Joel and I have been carrying on a long conversation about ethics and dialog (see the comments here). We were wandering around a kind of impasse. The other day, though, in another comment elsewhere, it seemed to me like Joel explained our difference of perspective. I had said something about how “extremism comes as a consequence of scarcity.” He replied:

Certainly some truth to that, but can we always expect to go ‘Up Up Up,’ and if there is a downside eventually (to life, romantic relationships, and financial markets) how do we cope with that eventuality?

I’m more interested in the coping mechanisms for bad times than what people do when they are doing well. As you said before, everyone is pretty nice in the MacDonalds as long as they have a burger.

But what if they don’t?

This, as I understood it, was like the subtext of the impasse between Liberation Theology and Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The liberationists (I was playing this role) wanted a religion that made no excuses for economic and political injustice. They were Marxists—religion is a superstructure that cannot be unraveled from the material conditions that produce it. Ratzinger (Joel’s role, if I may say so), on the other hand, wanted a Church and doctrine that could stand through thick and thin, pointing to mysteries that transcend human conditions.

Each position has its obvious problems. Ratzinger too easily forgets centuries of Church complicity with unjust rulers and the clergy’s passive refusal to take a prophetic stand. How can he pretend that doctrine isn’t touched by earthly concerns, whether we notice them or not? And the liberationists seem willing to devote every supernatural resource at the Church’s command to their earthly purposes. But if they do that, how can they possibly claim any supernatural authority? What makes a priest, then, any different from a guerilla? Each stance has its way of imploding if you look at it askew. Each almost needs the other.

This theological tangle, in its way, could be entering the political conversation very soon, if it hasn’t yet. Do we cling to hope above all, or do we devote ourselves to material solutions? Do we scramble to prevent a downturn at all costs, or do we brace ourselves for this inevitable and natural swing in the market?

Believe it or not, there’s also life beyond the presidential election, and, to use Joel’s word, there is and will be a lot of coping out there. What will it look like? Will we reach for transcendent comfort, or grab after the affluence that spoiled us in better times? Are the two any different?

18 comments on “Times of Need

  1. I’m not aware of any theologian with a good track record when commenting on political affairs — but of course I agree with the now Pope that the Church must remain somewhat distinct from any particular political movement (including both Marxism and de Maistre). The extent of that ‘somewhat’ is difficult to describe and I also spend a good deal of current time attempting to give it more definition in my own mind.

    ‘Complicity’ is something of a dirty (and tricky) word, because it happened most when the Church was most involved in politics, rather than taking the more passive stance it has in the age of secular democracy. So it is easy to get trapped in a Catch 22 — either one is involved aggressively (in which case one is responsible for whatever negative outcomes there may be) or one is not involved at all. Is not one also complicit then by inaction?

  2. We’ve got two related threads going on at once now, so let’s bring them together on this one. The other is here. I can feel this will be a long and wandering comment.

    Orestes Brownson? I don’t really know his work. I did read some overviews of it in an American religious history seminar with Catherine Albanese in grad school. I was even thinking of doing my term paper on him, since supposedly I was a “Catholic studies” student. But I ended up writing on Horace Bushnell, a fascinating early liberal Protestant from Hartford. Please do tell me what brings Brownson to mind for you.

    Complicity? How true—the catch-22. It is always there in theology, and I suspect that there’s no way out, so we should give up looking for one. You can only make the Church’s “complicity” an accusation if you believe that somehow an earthly church is capable of total purity. No, it is a theological and anthropological impossibility.

    And finally, economics. Max Weber, et al., should remind us how profoundly cyclical is the relationship between theological ideas and political economy. There lurks a genuine dilemma here, in my eyes, bound up in that catch-22. Theologies that drive worldly pursuits, such as Weber’s account of Calvinism, collapse in the face of worldly failure. It is a sign of divine disfavor. On the other hand, theologies that shun worldly pursuits equip one well to face hardship but they do not with so much vigor drive one to end the conditions that create hardship. The two orientations are not only different, they positively work against one another.

    Here are some of the binaries we’ve been identifying:

    worldly goals : transcendent goals
    virtue in comfort : strength in hardship
    dialog(ue) : communitarian ethics

    It is like we want to have the cake and eat it too. Presumably, everyone wants both sides of these. We want to fight for justice in the here and now while reaching things beyond it. We want to make the best of what riches we’ve been given while remaining strong in the case of their loss. And we want to encounter other communities and learn from them while holding to our own values.

    Each of these, on the surface, seems plainly contradictory. Each side of each binary requires commitments opposite to the other. Yet most every community, if you ask it, seeks after all six of these ideals. How? For many, the answer is simply, “God” or “grace” or some equivalent—that which is both closer than the jugular vein and vaulted above all. Or, in a more secular form, “We just keep trying to do both.”

    There are performances going on, dances. A good actor is one who is multi-dimensional, who reveals the strange fact that people are capable of doing more than one thing at once. We probably couldn’t choose between these binaries once and for all if we wanted to. It seems to me that the ethic we should privilege is versatility, adroitness. I think this is something like what you mean when you say:

    For me that remains an open question, but I am troubled by those that respond by increasing the volume of the ‘yes’ instead of remaining ‘open [and] honest,’ in a world where both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ need always to be considered.

    As far as presidential politics goes, perhaps this could take the form of ending the obsession over calling folks “flip-floppers” and focus more on why and when minds changed, or directions corrected for each other.

    I’ve been straying far from economics. There’s an interesting piece at DailyKos about economists dissenting from the looming bailout plan. Fascinating to see the “flip-flop” that’s going on there. Many Republicans are pushing for a massive bank bailout while many Democrats are saying no, we should ride the wave—which was almost the Republican position after the Great Depression (except today’s Democrats emphasize protecting the vulnerable). The experts disagree on what’s best, or what any given plan will actually do.

    Theologically, the choice looks to me like this: tend to the transcendental market (by rescuing the banks) or tend to the worldly needs of people that the market serves (by protecting those who’ve lost their assets)? Again, have a cake and eat it too. We want the market to work more perfectly, and we want people to not go starving. Each is supposed to lead to the other, but by very different means.

    The market, too, is a performance. It functions through perceptions. And like any performance, the subtle character of the execution is at least, if not more, important than the script. We need good economists, but we also need leaders who can help orchestrate our spirit.

    To return to where I started: after its history of “complicity,” thus the Catholic Church’s obsession with bella figura. If you’re going to walk the tightrope of contradiction, in thick and in thin, you’d better do it beautifully. Could beauty also answer an economic crisis?

  3. Can beauty save us? The position of the early church in a fractured political environment was to create an independent subculture that re-focused on the kernel of true religion — the care of the orphan and the widow — instead of exhausting its potential by joining one side or the other the on-going wars for greater political power (which may have been better or worse than another).

    I’m not sure the Catholic Church can be this any more — it is too big — but I feel strongly that Catholics can and should be this ‘salt’ in a world where many feel the need to suspend the tension in your ‘binaries,’ in order to prosecute the side that they feel is ‘better’ at the moment.

    Part of the dilemma here is the democratic culture that forces us always to chose — do I vote for him or him? And rarely (perhaps never?) is this a choice between good and evil, but variegated mixtures of both. Flip-flopping? Because there is only the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ on pre-defined issues politicians are forced to say one or the other from the moment they enter the arena. There is room neither for nuance nor the admission that one does not know.

    How can I know the proper response to years of fiscal mismanagement? I can state my ideals but I cannot state as clearly as you how they move into the realm of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a particular plan. ‘Adroitness’ seems to need to include the ability to dance around some issues, at least until one can dance with them.

    Why Orestes Brownson? He represents this adroitness with the American political environment, fighting for ‘progressive’ and religious causes of his day, but always and ultimately aware of their deficiencies as well as their strengths. Not all complexities are captured well by Northern abolitionist hagiographers; I believe that to be both ‘Catholic’ and ‘intellectual’ is to need to dig deeper, even if this to some extent this means marginalization.

    But what was the early church except marginal?

    Side note: I’m not sure that I accept your statement of ‘dialog(ue) : communitarian ethics’ as a binary (but can’t say for sure, since I’m still not sure what is included in ‘communitarian ethics.’

  4. Scary statement you start with—”can beauty save us?” Likely not, but it, combined with some clever ideas about what might work, can keep us moving. For the case of the New Deal, I’m thinking Keynes and the Brain Trust on the one hand, and Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” on the other. Having both expertise and grace is a way of recognizing that neither alone is sufficient to “save” us.

  5. The question comes from Dostoevsky and is broader in range and intent than the current financial crisis — not at all a statement about reneging on expertise or intelligence.

    Perhaps it simply means the ability to take enjoyment out of the small things in life (strolls through the park, poems) rather than the competitive desire to be bigger, better.

  6. Yeah, to your last point: these conversations of ours keep feeling like they’re getting lost in needless epicycles. They are enjoyable, though, on the level of parks and poems.

  7. Perhaps we should simply disagree to agree and change the focus to that extra ‘ue’ that I find desirable and you don’t.

    Or perhaps not. Talking cogently about ethics, economics, and their grounding in discourse is not easy but worthwhile if we can make ‘communitarian ethics’ tangible instead of auroral. But you are the one advocating for such — I posit the onus is on you at this moment to say something other than ‘merrily, merrily, merrily.’

    Although I also like these words, and that song.

  8. Hmm. I’m not exactly sure where you’re being sarcastic and where not. But sometimes there really is no better answer than being merry.

    “Communitarian ethics” becomes tangible in its particularities, in its communities. I think some of the difficulty here, which perhaps you’re pointing to, is the fact we’re getting lost trying to figure out universal principles rather than sorting out the ethics we, personally and as a community, want to live by.

  9. I’m not sure we are getting lost, as my primary objective is to push you into the tangible from the vague — this is your blog after all, not mine, and I can offer my own answers to the questions raised elsewhere (and have, and will continue to).

    I think that one *must* separate values from plans. For instance, what is our ideal society? Is it (A) to have more or less equal distribution of wealth, while people make love and music instead of working (B) to have a bell curve shaped society, where there are few rich, few poor, and a large middle class or (C) to have a few people with lots and lots of money, while the rest play in their casinos. Clearly there are many more options than this, but if you support a new New Deal in the event of an Obama presidency, it seems again the onus is on you to say why you support this — something more than ‘dancing’ or that your peers in the class of relatively wealthy Manhattanites support it. That’s not an argument, that’s not ethics, that’s simply stating you believe something because people around you do the same.

    If we could state what we are trying to obtain, then we can analyze whether or not a specific economic or social policy will help us obtain this goal. If we confine ourselves to thinking that is ‘communitarian’ instead of individual, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to think as well as act. I’ve seen this in Communist countries and the results are not pretty.

    So if you desire something other than lost epicycles, here is a concrete question, “What is the substance of a new deal you would support and why?”

  10. Look, to paraphrase ol’ Obama, deciding how the economy should run is not in my pay bracket (it is, however, in his). I don’t think that just because I’ve brought up the subject of the economy “the onus” is on me to plan its rescue. I am totally unqualified to do so. In my post above, in fact, I asked questions, not state claims, whether concrete or vague. I’d prefer to know what answers you have in mind, which is why I asked. The questions were not rhetorical, they were real. I never said that I support “a New Deal in the event of an Obama presidency.” I simply referenced the original New Deal as an example of how performance works in tandem with economics.

    I appreciate your pushing me to go further in this discussions, and I’m happy to try, but I think you’re reading me wrong to think that my questions are meant for me to answer!

  11. Forgive me if I misread your previous statement as an endorsement of a specific (or unspecific) plan — not even necessarily related to the present crisis. I’m suppose I’m just fishing for some sort of statement to respond to but if all you are presenting is questions, I have questions, and if we question our questions, it should be no surprise that at the end of it all we have are questions.

    The one thing I have suggested is that the task of the intellectual is to step back from present political debates and create a non-politically aligned subculture that can make statements about values — that will of course have political implications. The problem as I see it is that you are making what are essentially political endorsements (for not so ‘ol Obama), which crosses the bridge from the world of intellect to the world of activism, without any explanation of your intellectual support or values for doing so. Now if you want to say, ‘I am confident enough in the claims of Sojourners/NY Times/Mother Jones and feel that what we need to do is *act* on these claims,’ that’s fine. I’m not offended by that, but I will treat you as an activist and not an intellectual (and probably stop responding to your posts).

    Activists have their place and I love them; my position, however, is that America needs more genuine intellectuals to build the sort of real infrastructure (including bridges) that would sustain a feasible communitarian ethic.

    In the end, if you don’t have infrastructure, you don’t have anything.

  12. I would hate to have you stop responding to my posts. And I certainly agree with the desire to see more discussions in this country that aren’t neatly droppable in partisan buckets. I’m not quite so confident in such a strong distinction between intellectuals and activists, however; it seems to me that the best people in both categories are both. Pure intellectuals (the recent “debate” between Zizek and Levy in New York comes to mind) make more epicycles than anyone, and their appeal in Europe comes along with a strange celebrity worship. I actually think there’s sense to some of the distrust Americans have for eggheads. Our best thinkers have been people who think while acting. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind, as does Thomas Jefferson and even émigré Albert Einstein.

    Some time ago I pointed out that the period of the most exciting intellectual debates in Germany coincided with the rise of Nazism. So I doubt that simply stronger intellectual subcultures will be of much help.

    I’ve done all I can here to resist the herd instinct to support Obama dogmatically (while suggesting that people beware of that instinct in themselves too). My recent post on ‘Bama, as well as others linked to it, make clear that my support is a skeptical one, one that is waiting to see (what else can it do?). I am quite incapable of going whole-hog for the guy. Activism, generally, seems not in my temperament. But I think it is good for thinking to test one’s ideas through action—that is exactly what happened when I went canvassing in Philadelphia.

    As a thinker (whether or not I am your “intellectual,” you can’t take thinking away from me), I don’t feel a terrible responsibility to have a position on every “infrastructure” at all times. I’m learning, watching, and waiting. Often I am more interested in exploring the “communitarian ethics” that emerge on their own rather than consciously crafting ones of my own to foist upon the public. Even so, I still find plenty to write about; hopefully others find what I say interesting.

    It may be sensible to repeat a paragraph from the About page here:

    My tone and method is precisely speculative: every word is exactly hypothesis. I believe in the importance of free-ranging explanation, while recognizing fearfully that with even the most casual remark we are building ourselves and our world irrevocably.

    What Obama really said at Saddleback was “above my pay grade,” so I used the wrong word. But I’m not seeing the Freudian slip. Maybe I’m still too delusional, or just dense.

    It’s interesting, your language about “a non-politically aligned subculture that can make statements about values — that will of course have political implications” brings to mind the current controversy surrounding churches that want to be able to make political endorsements while still evading taxation. It sounds like you’re talking about starting a church. But there are already lots of those out there.

  13. I was afraid my post would be read to mean that one should not act on one’s beliefs. I don’t mean that at all and I wouldn’t ask you to exercise your right not to vote in this election or any election. What I do mean is that in the polarized political environment, I believe it is imperative that we take the time to step back and formulate what it is we believe in — not only what we do not believe in.

    As you point out occasionally in this space, the religious right is reasonably certain and uniform in expressing what it believes in: respect for unborn life, family values (defined traditionally of course), suspicion towards science, and various other components that make up the ‘Judeo-Christian ethic,’ I reference earlier. That is to say, such persons believe in something. They have a vision of an ideal society.

    But, as you admit, you do not. But you do have things that you do not believe in (e.g. ‘racism’ as expressed by white construction workers in Philadelphia), and various other components that make up what I have taken to calling the ‘anti-narrative.’ But what can you do with a lot of things you do not believe in? Does this ever coalesce into anything — or is the final result simply ‘diverse’ peoples left naked and ready to be exploited — as in fact African-Americans are and have been ever since they ended up neglected in Northern ghettos that even the police do not enter. Have you been?

    The reason I bring up ‘pay grade,’ is because the pecuniary aspect, at least in my mind, has nothing to do with the intellectual. There is no relation between how good you are and how rich you are. It is indicative of our society (and, perhaps, its Puritan roots) that we connect money with intelligence and success but I find this a mistake, however common.

    In any case, ‘wait and see’ just ain’t good enough for me.

  14. Interesting. When I first started this blog years ago I’d planned to have a section called “list of absolute certainties.” It never really materialized because I found that such a list was somewhat antithetical to the journey I’d like to undertake, or the sense of personhood I tend to hold. That is, we are patchy people, sorting things out. Systemics are useful in their place, but they can also get in the way of openness to new possibilities and to being wrong. I don’t want a vision of the future, as the Religious Right apparently has (though I would contest that, in fact they do): I want a way of being in the present. And if that means not having all the answers, so be it. I think you mistake my not having a clear, universal statement on every possible thing for not having a statement on anything. (This is a mistake that creationists make about evolutionary science—because it hasn’t figured everything out yet it must be fundamentally bankrupt. Or those who think that because atheists don’t believe in God they don’t believe in anything. Or, most importantly to me, those who mistake nonviolent resistance for passivity.)

    Good places to start understanding my approach, perhaps, are here and here. Comprehensive nonviolence is also vital (here and here and here). Perhaps you’ve seen these already.

    There is a lot to be said for waiting about certain things. Patience is a virtue my mother taught me that I value very much.

    I agree very much with what you say about pay grade. You’re absolutely right. But I also agree with the sense in which Obama said it: who is he to decide when life begins? He said that in a church and I think the implication is that perhaps only God can answer a question like that. In the meantime, people have to sort out approximations.

    Finally. It is hurtful to me that you imply that my approach ends in “‘diverse’ peoples left naked and ready to be exploited.” I’m open to the possibility that you’re right, but I hope you aren’t making such accusations lightly and without careful thought. It feels throughout this discussion like you are angry at me for some reason, and nothing I say seems to ease that tone in your responses. Maybe, if I’m not saying what you want me to say, it is up to you to say it instead. I’d be very eager to hear!

  15. I admit Angst and perhaps Anger with respect to the situation that faces the land that I love and greater world — although insofar as possible this is not directed against persons-other but rather self. My hope is to motivate persons to do more, better, but expectations are much more limited.

    Never said I the Religious Right had a vision for a future, only some conception of an ‘ideal society,’ which may be past. Still, I am curious what and how you would contest.

    Socialite skepticism? I’m not much of a cowboy and have little time for trysts. If you wish to question me on my writings send an email to joel.anselm.dietz at google’s mail service and I will post my blog. I’ll continue to answer the questions I raise as best I am able.

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